'Zeno Clash' and Active Characterization

by L.B. Jeffries

1 June 2010

What keeps Zeno Clash’s strange story so intriguing is not how weird the characters are, it’s how weirdly they act.
 

Among Zeno Clash’s many unique characteristics, the game’s take on characterization is probably its most accomplished. While Zenozoik is certainly an exotic location, the game’s linear nature doesn’t really develop the space extensively. Few locales are named and inevitably when we are exploring there is also fighting going on. Instead, the game works a bit like a museum tour of various bizarre characters. With a combination of creative activity and clever exposition, the game introduces us to interesting people and lets us watch them act out their natures.

My playthrough for this game was on the XBLA version, which fixes a lot of the problems in the original like the difficulty balancing and hit detection. The brawling system works well as a combination of blocking, power moves, and combos. It manages to dodge the pitfalls of other FPS brawlers by encouraging the player to get up close to the opponent. If you move in and successfully dodge a punch, you can land a stronger attack instead of just whaling away. A stamina bar also keeps the game from just devolving into mashing X. Opponents can generally be divided up by their own moves like being able to do a spin kick or how adept they are at blocking. Mini-bosses can only be hurt using blunt weapons, which tends to reduce the encounters into a bull fighting experience. In that sense, characters are predictable and in the style of the brawler tradition can be beaten by memorizing their patterns. The occasional gun is thrown into the mix but they only have a few shots and take a long time to reload, meaning that enemies will usually close in on you before things get unbalanced.
  
What makes the game shine are the characters that you beat up. There is an excellent mixture of abstract types and more fully defined ones at work. The very first ones that you fight are Father-Mother’s children as you flee her wrecked body. Their curses are simple and childlike. As they chase you, they chastise you for hurting Father-Mother. It’s a weirdly protective vibe for a video game where the norm for dialogues like these is silence or insults. It’s also one that incriminates the player and makes them more interested both in their character and the relationship that they’ve wrecked. The opening helps build on this dynamic with its long trail of bizarre imagery showing Father-Mother with various babies and her grown children all interacting. These are very vocal opponents, and the game establishes the bare components of its narrative with a few scarce cutscenes and the aforementioned shouting.

The most interesting characters in the game are the Corwid. The early fights begin with a long exposition by Ghat about an individual named Corwid before you act out his encounter. The descriptions are short and simple but often startling in their own way. The Corwids, for example, are described as not being slaves to reality. Ghat comments that Erminia, “peed on herself and starved to death anonymously, and that is what Erminia did. Because Corwids are not slaves of their needs, of eating, or sleeping.” Eventually you’ll walk by Erminia’s corpse later in the level. I don’t think that the moment really requires an intensive analytical reading. The concept of someone being that disinterested in obeying their physical needs is easy to understand. What’s pleasant is that the game is properly combining information in the static elements of narrative with experiences in the interactive sections. They don’t just allude to something strange in the world and then have you continue on, every detail that is emphasized is one that you can interact with later. I mean that in the most bare bones sense, just walking around and observing something in a 3-D space is arguably interaction. It’s really important in a game like Zeno Clash because without the interaction grounding the game’s narrative it would become rapidly incomprehensible. Even if Erminia is just a corpse that you walk by, it’s still a detail that exists on multiple levels.

One of the more dangerous Corwids is Gabel, who eats people because that’s just his thing. Ghat takes time to mention that he didn’t feel like being eaten was his purpose. It’s an odd moment because the game is describing the scene very differently from how the player is probably seeing it. The level interactively amounts to you being locked in a cage and fighting your fellow prisoners and then a giant monster. Since video games are generally always establishing player motivation through the system of “I want to beat the level”, the whole moment becomes ridiculous because the game’s story has provided the bare minimum of inspiration. It uses a contrast between game design and content to spark the classic gaming question of, “Why am I doing this?” It’s a good question to ask because it’s the same one that Ghat is asking himself as he discovers the Corwid’s philosophy.

If you’re at all familiar with Procedural Rhetoric, you’ll remember that the way that the argument made in the book is that a game design communicates ideas by asking the player a question and giving them feedback to their responses. Mostly in a game the question will be, “What happens if I shoot that thing?”, or if the plot is entertaining, “What do I have to do to see more of the story?” Even if you’re enjoying both parts of a game simultaneously, the best games fire up a rhythm between the two inquiries. I leaned towards wanting to hear the story in Zeno Clash, but the game’s design was really good at making the opponents engaging as abstractions. Everything in the game looks like a muppet gone horribly wrong, so to keep this from being mere novelty, each fight you’re actually introduced to these creatires. A “Vs.” screen pops up, and you catch a glimpse of their face and names. Since these characters appeared regularly, I found myself getting interested in them as “people”.

The leader of Father-Mother’s children in particular, the woman with the straw hat who beats the crap out of you, was really interesting because I found myself assigning a personality to her. Most of the time in a game, enemies are all just robots or faceless soldiers; they’ve got no character. Here, because of the repetition and the characterizing screen, I had a lot of associations going on in all three gaming sweetspots. I knew she that was tough because of the game design, that she wanted revenge for hurting Father-Mother because of the dialogue, and I had my own ideas about her in my own head.

This is the core of what makes the game’s plot so interesting: it’s not the weird characters or brawling elements alone, but how the game shows the philosophies of characters in action in very abstract ways. The strange person with a giant bowl on its head has decided that it will walk in a straight line for the rest of its existence. The game will have you come across these creatures a number of times. The first thought that most people have about the character is to wonder what happens when they run into a wall and sure enough, later in the game we’ll see them staring at one. You don’t talk to them, and they never explain anything about themselves. It’s Zeno Clash’s willingness to leave people to draw their own conclusions that keeps these moments intact.

Another example is the creature Golem who eventually criticizes the Corwid, “If you won’t try to find coherence in the world, have the courtesy of becoming apathetic instead of affecting others with your pointless actions.” He explains himself as a very principled being, one driven by the ideals of a past civilization—although nothing is ever really elaborated concerning that point. When we see him idle, Golem is solving a Rubix cube. As a character who is seeking to reveal Father-Mother’s secrets and bring a new order to the world, he’s acting in this manner even when he’s sitting around.

The game has plenty of other strengths that will be more familiar to people. Spatial details like a frowny face nailed to a dart board or a living garbage can that shakes when you touch it fall into the more traditional storytelling techniques of games. The voice acting in the XBLA version seemed fine to me in a weird, everyone is confused sort of way. Conversations can be overheard to flesh out people’s lives, and the story is overall a bizarre Campbellian journey that takes Ghat back to confront the issues that he ran away from. I’d praise the story more but it ends on a cliffhanger, so I’m not really sure where it’s going with all the philosophy and Hindi cultural references. What keeps Zeno Clash’s strange story so intriguing is not how weird the characters are, it’s how weirdly they act.

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